What do a prominent city lawyer, a bunch of gangland criminals and a few well respected members of the Victoria Police ranks have in common? It appears, a little too much.
In the wake of Lawyer X being identified as former criminal barrister Nicola Gobbo, many infamous underworld gangsters currently incarcerated are hopeful her undoing will present them an option to appeal their hefty sentences. The first inmate to successfully appeal his sentence was convicted getaway driver Faruk Orman, who last month had his conviction quashed after losing 12 years of his life unnecessarily.
For many, the thought of underworld criminals hitting the jackpot with this newfound form of get-out-of-jail-free-card is infuriating. However, this is real life, not a game of Monopoly. As D*Scribe discovered, there is in fact very logical legal reasoning behind the unlocking of a few rusty prison cell padlocks that is bound to occur in the foreseeable future.
So, what exactly is the problem with a lawyer exposing her client’s secrets to police?
Let’s begin with the basics. In a criminal trial, there are two sides – the lawyer trying to get the best outcome for their client and the police trying to lock up criminals. Similar to a footy match, one side should not dare share their game tactics with the opposition because that might compromise the fairness of the game. That is exactly what happened the minute Victoria Police agreed to use a lawyer as an informer when they were struggling to put a stop to the bloody gangland war.
The role of a criminal defence barrister is to defend you, whether innocent or guilty. You are supposed to have the peace of mind of knowing anything you tell them will only be used to improve your legal dilemma.
D*Scribe spoke with Associate Lecturer of Law at Deakin University and two-time National Finalist for Academic of the Year, Cassandra Seery, to get an understanding as to why this scandal has brought the whole legal system into disrepute.
“All lawyers are bound by professional conduct rules which outline what they can and cannot do with information given to them by a client. For example, Rule 114 of the Legal Profession Uniform Conduct (Barristers) Rules 2015 (Vic) provides that a barrister must not disclose or use confidential information,” said Seery.
Legal professionals also have duties to promote their client’s best interests. A perfect example of not acting in your client’s best interests is to do as Lawyer X did when Mr Orman was her client. In her role as a police informer, Lawyer X had an interest in assisting the police that was incompatible with her need to act in Orman’s best interests. By pressuring a witness to testify against her own client (to help police), Mr Orman’s right to a fair trial was compromised – the reason he is a free man today.
The reality people often struggle to comprehend is that whether innocent or guilty, everyone is entitled to a fair trial. If the trial is found to have been tainted, the conviction itself is no longer valid as it is considered a miscarriage of justice. Without a valid conviction, there is no basis for a person to be kept in prison.
“Our system is founded on the presumption of innocence. It is the state (Victoria Police) who bears the burden of proving a person’s guilt. Any evidence provided to support that conclusion must be obtained within the rules. A failure to uphold these obligations compromises the client’s right to a fair trial,” added Seery.
So with all these rules, how does a lawyer become a police informer?
In recently aired documentary Lawyer X: The Untold Story, retired Detective Sergent Charlie Bezzino said that Gobbo was caught with drugs while at university studying law. Two of her friends were charged with significant offences, but Gobbo had her charges reduced to possession and use.
This fact had been subjected to suppression orders by Victoria Police since 2014, however tireless work by the Herald Sun saw suppression orders lifted and the whole scandal exposed. Patrick Carlyon, Journalist at the Herald Sun, has been involved in investigative reporting on the whole saga.
“A lot of people marry that (her drug charges being lessened) to the fact that she was then a police informer two years later. It is known she made acquaintances with drug squad detectives who were found to be corrupt”, Patrick said.
Whatever the reason, Gobbo’s conduct has been described by the highest Australian court as a ‘fundamental and appalling breach of her obligations’ while further destroying public confidence in police and the legal process.
Ms Seery reassured D*Scribe it is possible prosecutors may order a retrial of any of the criminals that have their sentences quashed.
“As the Faruk Orman case highlights – it might be unjust to order such a retrial. Those who have been released as a result of the Lawyer X scandal may not find themselves back in a court room,” said Seery.
While the secrets of criminals being wrongfully exposed to police by a rogue lawyer may resemble a crime novel plot, the reality is that public trust in the legal system has been destroyed. The next generation of lawyers will have their work cut out for them trying to restore confidence in legal professionals and the integrity of our system.
While they are busy doing just that, criminals affected by this scandal will likely be walking out of prison. They might even stop as they pass GO to collect expected 6-figure Commonwealth pay-outs for their wrongful incarcerations.